Melvin Van Peebles, Filmmaker Heralded as the Godfather of Black Cinema, Dies at 89
Melvin Van Peebles, the groundbreaking filmmaker, playwright and musician whose work helped usher in the “blaxploitation” wave of the 1970s and influenced filmmakers long after, has died. He was 89.
In a statement, his family said that Van Peebles, father of the actor-director Mario Van Peebles, died Tuesday evening at his home in Manhattan.
“Dad knew that Black images matter. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what was a movie worth?” Mario Van Peebles said in a statement Wednesday. “We want to be the success we see, thus we need to see ourselves being free. True liberation did not mean imitating the colonizer’s mentality. It meant appreciating the power, beauty and interconnectivity of all people.”
Van Peebles is perhaps best known for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, in which he plays the titular character—a wrongfully accused ladies man on the run from racist cops. The film, as with many of Van Peebles works, was highly influential, and is considered a gem of the Blaxploitation genre. His body of work, including movies like The Story of a Three-Day Pass, Watermelon Man, and Don’t Play Us Cheap, went on to influence directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Quentin Tarantino.
In addition to his own films, Van Peebles worked as an actor frequently throughout his career, appearing in Robert Atman’s O.C. and Stiggs, Jaws: The Revenge, Last Action Hero, and more. He pursued many creative endeavors, such as painting and writing plays, but Van Peebles was also deeply enmeshed with the music community. He composed the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which was recorded by legendary group Earth, Wind & Fire. He also wrote and sang on the score for his previous film Watermelon Man, which featured slide guitar courtesy of Ry Cooder.
Van Peebles released a string of solo albums throughout the decades, and collaborated with a number of contemporary artists. In 2014, Van Peebles released The Last Transmission, a sprawling spoken word and jazz record with the Heliocentrics. Just last year, the filmmaker appeared in the visual for Standing on the Corner’s single “Angel.”